21 July 2014

Quebec Gothic



The Temple on the River [Les Écœurants]
Jacques Hébert [trans. Gerald Taaffe]
Montreal: Harvest House, 1967

More novella than novel, I first read The Temple on the River a couple of hours before meeting the author. Picking it up twenty-eight years later later, I remembered little. A coming of age story, right?

Why The Temple on the River didn't stay with me must have to do with the speed at which it was read. A very entertaining story, it's infused with brilliant humour of the blackest sort.

The narrator and protagonist is François Sigouin of the Quebec City Sigouins. His father is a Superior Court judge, as was his father before him… that is until grand-père raped the niece of a Dominican father on the Plains of Abraham. The flames of scandal are quickly extinguished, but not before they kill proper, pearl-wearing grand-mère. The newly widowed judge retires to the village of La Malbaie, "where they can't believe that one of the Sigouins could be a dirty old man", never mind a rapist.

Young François is summoned to keep his exiled grandfather company, but spends most of his time in the company of housekeeper Sévérine, an elderly spinster:
She was still in the Legion of Mary at sixty-five, the kind of old woman that hangs around the sacristy, on the prier's skirts, all year round, a frog boiled to death in holy water. At her age she kept suing that she was a virgin and pure, though she didn't take two baths a year.
Under Sévérine's guidance François becomes an enthusiastic churchgoer, but this has everything to do with pretty Mireille, the beer-drinking labourer's daughter, who seems always to be sitting beneath a statue of St Anthony.

The Temple on the River is indeed a coming of age novel. Returning to it all these years later I was surprised to find that it takes place decades after the author's own youth. François watches television, dreams of destinations depicted in Air France travel posters and later, as a student at the Collège des Jésuits, listens jazz and bad poetry at a Quebec City beatnik club. His adolescence leads to the Quiet Revolution, when it could be argued Quebec itself came of age.

Hébert himself played a liberating role during those years. He was an old man of forty-three when the story of François Sigouin was first published, yet it demonstrates a true understanding of the younger generation.

That would be the generation before mine. I could be wrong.


Object: A 175-page paperback in Penguin orange, slightly wider than a typical mass market. It features ten full-page illustrations by Pierre Lusier. In 1985, I purchased my copy – then not inscribed – from a Montreal bookseller for 25 cents.

Access: The Temple on the River was published simultaneously in paper and cloth – then never again. Two paperback copies are currently list online – $9.99 and $19.95 – but I recommend the uncommon cloth. Both have dust jackets, both are inscribed, and at US$33.75 and US$39.00 aren't too far apart in terms of price.

The original French, Les Écœurants, was published in 1966 by Éditions du Jour. I've never seen a copy, so shamefully present this image (right), lifted from a Gatineau bookseller. He's asking only $10.00, which seems a very good deal. It was last reissued in 1987 by Stanké.

Most universities have a copy, as does Bibliothèque et Archives nationals du Québec, but Library and Archives Canada fails. The only public library that serves is that of the City of Vancouver. Curiously, the French-language original is much more common in English-language institutions.

15 July 2014

Richard Rohmer's Retaliation: The Chairmen Rave



Retaliation
Richard Rohmer
Toronto: PaperJacks, 1983

I wonder when Eaton's closed down its book department. Well before the end, wasn't it? I know it was still going on 26 June 1986 because that day I visited the downtown Montreal store where Jacques Hébert was signing copies of his most recent. I bought a copy for my mum.


No one else responded to the ad. A publicist tried to slow my departure by taking photos. Somewhere out there are shots of me with the senator (I'm wearing a Batman t-shirt). The only other book I can remember ever buying at Eaton's was a copy of Robert Harlow's Scann that had been marked down to 25¢ (on the cover, in the tradition of yard sales).

No one really went to Eaton's for books, did they? Yet, the lone paperback edition of Richard Rohmer's Retaliation provides strong evidence that its president, chairman and CEO was also a reader and a critic.


"This romp has appropriate amounts of financial ledger-demain, unscrupulous political acts, violence and romance. Lots of action and lots of fun."

Romp isn't the right word, nor is "ledger-demain" (he means legerdemain), but unscrupulous political acts, violence and romance do figure. Whether their amounts are appropriate depend, I think, on individual taste. Romance barely registers, levels of violence and political activity are a touch lower than one might expect in a thriller, and legerdemain is simply not in evidence.

The story is really quite simple:

Paul James, former executive of the "Canadian International Bank of Canada", comes up with a plan that would see the bank team up with the "Toronto Depository Bank" and Saudi Arabia to purchase "BankAmerica". Such is his confidence in the scheme that he commits $100 million of his own money – made in "the oil patch in Calgary" – to the effort. CIBC chairman Ross Harris encourages his old colleague to team up with the "Royal Canadian Bank", the "Bank of Montreal-Quebec" and Kuwait to also buy "Citicorp". No competition between banks, it seems.

Paul moves fast. Within two weeks, he has rented a Swiss castle, loaded it with computers, and has begun buying stock in both American banks. Disaster threatens when the Mafia abduct the computer supplier and his ugly daughter. This proves a momentary glitch. The ransom is paid, the kidnappers are killed, and the money is returned. The Mafia seek revenge, but fail. This being fiction, they throw in the towel.

By the end of the fourth trading day Paul has succeeded in getting controlling interest in the two banks, earning $1.86 million on his investment. Washington is pissed and imposes strict sanctions and the Canadian economy collapses, resulting in "a depression worse than that of the 1930s." Paul suns himself at his Barbados getaway.

FIN

The Globe & Mail, 6 November 1982
"This could happen!" C. Richard Sharpe, Chairman and CEO of Simpson-Sears, exclaims. Frankly, I thought the whole thing so patently absurd that any criticism would be stating the obvious.* But then Thomas J. Bell, Chairman of the Board at Abitibi-Price, weighs in with "very authentic… it could be true."

Who else do we got?

Well, there's Stephen B. Roman, who had once tried to sue Pierre Trudeau for coming out against the sale of an Ontario uranium mine to the Americans. Seems he still held a grudge.

There's also Donald Campbell, Chairman and CEO of Maclean-Hunter, publisher of Rohmer's The Green North. Bit of a book connection there, as there is with Jack Rhind, who apart from being Chairman and CEO of Confederation LIfe was a director with Cannon Book Distribution.

Not a banker among them, I note.

Bank notes: Paul's risky investment brings a return of 1.86 percent. Though inflation is in the double-digits, this is portrayed as considerable. As the result American sanctions, the value of the Canadian dollar falls to US$0.60. This appears to have had no effect on Paul's fortune. At the end of the novel, the Canadian banks are on the brink of collapse. Ross Harris regrets nothing.

Trivia: Simpson-Sears' C. Richard Sharpe served with the author in 411 Squadron.

Object: A mass market paperback. The page count is identical to that of the hardcover. Same plates? I can't be bothered to find out.

Access: Library and Archives Canada, Bibliothèque et Archives nationals du Québec and fifteen university libraries. More miss than hit in our public libraries.

Copies of the paperback are listed online for one dollar; copies of the hardcover first edition begin at two. One Toronto bookseller is selling a Fine copy inscribed by the author for $25.
*Anyone interested in my criticisms – and those of my pals Chris and Stan – is directed to the Reading Richard Rohmer project.

11 July 2014

The Gayest Femme Fatale



No Place in Heaven
Laura Warren
Toronto: News Stand Library, 1949

News Stand Library flogged No Place in Heaven as a scandalous memoir, but I think it's a work of fiction. Somehow I can't bring myself to believe that the manuscript of a repentant, dying woman ended up with a crooked, fly-by-night Toronto paperback publisher.

Laura Warren (née Fletcher) looks back on life from her deathbed, beginning with the miracle of her birth, not six months after her parents' marriage. Ma and Pa, vaudeville performers both, shoot for Hollywood stardom, but lose a race with a locomotive. Baby Laura is left to be raised by her Aunt Bessie who runs a New York rooming house catering to artistic types.

"Living in Aunt Bessie's rooming house [sic] was like taking the vow of chastity and then moving into the YMCA", says Laura. "You took a chance just bending over to pick up a bar of soap." It's a little hard to imagine our heroine growing to be such an innocent eighteen-year-old, but there you are. She gets a job as a hat check girl at the Kit Kat Club, where she meets Tony Warren. The reader pegs him as a good-for-nothing louse, but not Laura. She falls for him bad, he takes her virginity and then they marry.

But, wait, isn't he a louse?

Tony joins the Marines, is shipped out to fight the "Japs", and a baby is left on Aunt Bessie's doorstep. Laura cares for the child until old high school friend Marie Gibbs, she of the "moist hour glass [sic] figure", reveals herself as the mother and Tony as the father. Minutes later, Aunt Bessie tells Laura that the Japs have done in her husband. By her own admission, the poor girl goes a bit loopy:
     I sobbed to a shuddering stop.
     "Revenge is mine, saith the Lord," I giggled. "But don't forget Aunt Bessie, the world is full of Tonys… yep, the woods are full of them… like Japs. And little Laura is going out and shoot 'em down," I pointed my finger, "boom, boom, boom, like that, like I had a gun."
It's impolite but accurate to say that little Laura slays the "Tonys" by being a tease. She sends her first victims to find relief with a prostitute known as Syphilis Sal. Laura leads the wealthy wife of a kept man to believe that she is his mistress, and walks out on vain Max Arnott after convincing him that he is far too small to satisfy a woman. Her most interesting victim is gay bookseller John Ossington, whom she tortures by bedding, bedding, bedding and bedding the young object of his desire.*

All is done with a smile on her face.


No Place in Heaven is the fourth title tackled in a focused effort to uncover unrecognized Canadian novels buried in News Stand Library's pulp. While nothing here is reminiscent of NSL authors Hugh Garner and Ted Allan, I wouldn't rule out Thomas P. Kelley.

More than anything, No Place in Heaven brought to mind No Tears for Goldie, Kelley's pseudonymous 1950 novel, with Aunt Bessie sitting in for kind-hearted Aunt Maggie. Both are built of workmanlike prose enlivened by ribaldry – but then much the same could be said about many News Stand Library titles. I could be wrong. Could've been written by someone else. And there's always some slight possibility that Laura Warren was a real person. Hope not. I hate to think of her in hell.


Favourite passage:
     "You're the sexiest looking bast'd I've seen in ages," she slurred, "I'd like to sleep with yoooo."
Object: A poorly produced, 160-page mass market paperback, my copy was printed for the American market. The cover artist – unidentified – does not do Laura Warren justice.

Access: No listing on WorldCat. Two copies are currently for sale online – one Fair Canadian at US$7.95 and one Very Good American at US$20. Can't say which is the better buy. Get 'em while you can.
* "Bedding" isn't quite the word – the trysts take place in a boathouse – but you know what I mean. 
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09 July 2014

Why You Shouldn't Feel Bad about the 100 Novels List (and why the CBC should)



"Depressing how few of these I've read," writes a friend. Minutes later, others begin chiming in with similar sentiment… and the list is shared. Such is the power of Facebook. The grey gloom generator is CBC Books' "100 NOVELS THAT MAKE YOU PROUD TO BE A CANADIAN".

Novels that make me proud to be Canadian? Do really I need help? After eight years of Harper Government™ rule, perhaps I do. But this isn't going to do it:

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A remarkably democratic list, is it not?  No author is represented more than once except Margaret Atwood because… oh, I don't know… Because she's Margaret Atwood? That fifty titles are by women and fifty are by men is, I am certain, no happy accident. Modest effort has been made toward regional balance, and the Canadian mosaic appears well in evidence – that is, until one realizes that there are only six French-language titles.

Six? And not one is The Tin Flute. What gives? The list's all too brief introduction may provide an explanation:


I see. Canada has a wealth of writers, and they're telling today's tales, and they're revisiting our past.

So, it's living writers only then. Got it.

But wait, what's Hugh MacLennan doing on the list? And Robertson Davies? And Mordecai Richler? And Carol Shields? They're not "telling today's tales." Hell, Stephen Leacock is so long dead that his books have been in the public domain for nearly two decades.

(About the "novels are all in print" bit: was that a criteria? Could this explain Margaret Millar's absence?)

Eaton's, Montreal, 1947
For anyone considering "everything from cultural impact and critical reception to reader response", The Tin Flute is an inescapable add. Such was the acclaim that the Toronto Eaton's – the Toronto Eaton's –advertised and sold the book in French. It won a Governor General's Award and the Prix Femina. It has been published in fourteen languages, adapted to film, is taught across the country and has never gone out of print. Go ahead, name another novel that has had greater cultural impact, name one that had greater reader response.

How about Anne of Green Gables?

Anne of Green Gables isn't on the list.

The muddled became muddied when guest host Suhana Meharchand opened discussion about the list on Cross Country Checkup. Forget all that stuff about  novels to make you feel proud, this was now "100 must-read Canadian novels", a list of "one hundred great Canadian novels" through which one can "become an expert in Canadian fiction". Ms Meharchand was then joined by CBC Books producer Erin Balser who revealed it to be nothing more than a list of 100 Canadian novels that various CBC producers think everyone should read. She went on to say that the goal was to present "a balance of classic and contemporary books because we wanted to represent the whole history of Canadian literature."

If we're to consider novels written by those who "call or once called Canada home", the first up is Frances Brooke's The History of Emily Montague. It was published in 1769, one hundred and forty-three years before Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, the oldest book on the list. A further thirty-three years pass before we encounter another.


Ms Balser's words to the contrary, there is no "balance of classic and contemporary". Over half the books on the list were published between 2000 and 2013 (there are no titles from 2014). Seventy-nine of the books were published in the last twenty years. Eight of the books were published in 2009 alone, more than the 'sixties and 'seventies combined.

"We all know that readers love lists," enthused Suhana Meharchand. True enough. Here's mine:

SIX NOVELISTS WHO "CALL OR ONCE CALLED CANADA HOME" NOT FOUND ON THE 100 NOVELS LIST
Saul Bellow
Mavis Gallant
Malcolm Lowry
Antonine Maillet
Brian Moore 
Gabrielle Roy
It was hoped that "100 NOVELS THAT MAKE YOU PROUD TO BE A CANADIAN" would "start a dialogue in this country", but this list is an opportunity wasted. Messy and poorly presented, it is nothing more than a grab bag of recent novels peppered with CanLit course standbys. Predictably, for this is today's CBC, most of the Giller and Canada Reads winners are included.

For the record, I've read nineteen of the hundred.

That number doesn't depress me in the least.

An explanation (of sorts):
There's actually two Margaret Atwood novels. The second one is Handmaid's Tale [sic]. So there are only two because we felt there should only be two – even though we all love Margaret Atwood deeply.
– Erin Balser, Cross Country Checkup, 29 June 2014
Errata: A sharp-eyed reader points out that Joseph Boyden also has two titles on the list. Thank you, Edith!

04 July 2014

Brian Moore's Canada for Americans – and isn't that Leonard Cohen?



Canada
Brian Moore and the Editors of LIFE
New York: Time, 1963

The LIFE World Library was once found in every third suburban rec room and on one of ten coffee tables. That's what I remember, anyway. Now you can't give them away.

There were thirty-two volumes in all, but Canada is the only one I own. I paid $1.50 – entirely too much – at a Toronto Goodwill fourteen years ago, and have been moving it about the country ever since. Until yesterday, it was one of only two Brian Moore titles I hadn't read; today Murder in Majorca stands alone.

Canada is an odd duck. It's Moore's only non-fiction book and his only collaboration. Just who are those "Editors of LIFE"? One was Oliver E. Allen, who would one day garner praise for New York, New York: A History of the World's Most Exhilarating City and The Tiger: The Rise and Fall of Tammany Hall.

Knowing that the Library was sold throughout the anglosphere, and was translated into French, German, Dutch and Spanish, I was surprised to see the extent to which Canada is tailored toward American readers. The Introduction is written by Livingston T. Merchant, former U.S. Ambassador to Canada (1956-58). "For most of us in the United States, Canada is not really a foreign country", writes the diplomat. "And failure to grasp the simple fact accounts for much of the difficulty which growingly attends our relationship." So it is that in Ambassador Merchant's opinion, the book provides a "needed service".

This all sounds dry, but isn't because Moore is a real pro. For evidence, look no further than his chapter on Canadian history: Lief Erikson to Lester Pearson in under 4500 words and he still finds space for the Fenian Raids.

Each volume in the series had a history chapter; it's in the others that Moore really shines. His writing on Quebec, not yet three years into the Quiet Revolution, is as much about how the province is (or was) as how it will be (or is). A chapter on post-war immigration draws on his own experiences and includes this horribly accurate description: "The cities split at their extremities, disgorging long, untidy entrails of new concrete factories, shopping centers and suburban office blocks."

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No chapter is more surprising than "Clubmen and the Other Club", which begins:
There is no such person as Stewart Henderson McMaster, yet he is easily invented. Almost certainly his name will have a Scottish ring. He is English on his mother's side, and his wife, the granddaughter of an Anglican bishop, is also of English descent. He is director of two or more of Canada's dominant business corporations, a university governor, an executive member of the Canadian Manufacturers' Association and the Canadian Chamber of Commerce. He sits on the board of more than a dozen charitable institutions.
Moore's "Other Club", composed of members of the intellectual class, is personified by clergyman's son "Gordon Bruce Howard",  a Rhodes scholar who sipped sherry at Oxford with "the brightest minds from all over the British Commonwealth". Although Moore doesn't say, Gordie Howard is just the sort of who would have visited Montreal's Hostellerie, where drink flowed freely and sweaters were bulky.


Canada includes three images of the café. This shot appears to capture a twenty-something Leonard Cohen.

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That's him on the far right, right?

Being a LIFE book, there are photos aplenty. My favourite is this oddly unsettling image of Mme Edmond-Louis Simard and family of Bagotville.

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More than a half-century later, this photograph of hydro workers in Kitimat looks like something from the future.


I'd never seen this photograph of Hugh MacLennan, whom Moore describes as "the only serious novelist of the 1940s".


And here's Morley Callaghan, "for many years a neglected oddity in his native city."


Meanwhile, Harold Town and Tom Onley adopt the painter's pose.


A chicken in every pot and a Moore in every home. Not quite, but it is nice to think that they were once so common. I wonder how many were read. Or did people just look at the pictures?

Did they even do that?

Trivia: Moore wasn't the only name recruited by LIFE. Hammond Innes provided a volume on Scandinavia. Elizabeth Bishop got paid US$10,000 (over US$75,000 today) for her volume on Brazil.

Object: A 160-page hardcover, featuring 104 photographs, six paintings, four illustrations and three maps (four with the endpapers). Loads of copies are available online; pay no more than one dollar. Goodhearted souls who volunteer at library book sales may snag a copy en route to being pulped.

Easily found in academic libraries; less so in public libraries.


01 July 2014

Patriotic Verse from the Garden of a Girl's Dreams



For this day, the 147th anniversary of the birth of the Dominion of Canada, patriotic verse by the ever-charming Ethel Ursula Foran. A piece of juvenilia, it leads off Poems: A Few Blossoms from the Garden of My Dreams, her debut collection of "immature verses", published in 1922 by Librarie Beauchemin. "With all their imperfections they must remain just as they were composed", Miss Foran writes in the Preface. In accordance with her wishes, the poem is presented here with typos and misspellings intact.
CANADA 
I love this fair Dominion; my natvie land, all hail!
Its wondrous proportions are on the grandest scale;
Its endless virgin forests, its mighty inland seas,
Its Rockies and its Selkirks, like Alps and Pyranees;
Its vast expanse of prairies, where vision seeks in vain
The limits of the billowy fields of undulating grain;
Its rivers with their volumes, in their majestic sweep,
Through miles of fertile country down to Atlantic's deep;
Its cascades and the thunders of Niagara's giant fall;
The echoes of its vastness that from sea to mountains call;
Its Liberties as precious as the features that we trace,
Its blending of all elements of province, creed and race;
Its every noble aspect that God has pronounced "good,"
'Tis a marvellous mosaic of Canadian nationhood.
Yes, I love this fair Dominion, the grandest land on earth,
'Tis the land of a bright future, and the dear land of my birth.

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